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ACLU, Human Rights Watch Call For Drug Decriminalization In New Report

By McCarton Ackerman 10/14/16

The report explores the drug war's failure and racial disparities in drug arrests nationwide. 

ACLU, Human Rights Watch Call For Drug Decriminalization In New Report

Two of the most prominent human rights groups in the country have taken a bold stand by calling for the decriminalization of personal use and possession for all drugs.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) teamed up to release a new report on Wednesday. In addition to poring through data, they interviewed 149 people who were prosecuted for using drugs in New York, Texas, Florida and Louisiana. Sixty-four of these individuals are still in custody.

The research project flatly declared the War on Drugs to be a failure, citing high rates of substance abuse despite state law enforcement agencies making 1.25 million drug possession arrests each year—roughly one of every nine arrests nationwide, according to TIME. At least one of the people they interviewed is currently serving a sentence of more than 10 years for simple possession.

In addition to arguing the notion that drug criminalization drives drug use further underground and makes it less likely that users will seek treatment, the study also noted stark racial disparities in drug arrests nationwide. The report showed that black adults are twice as likely to be arrested for possession as white adults, despite using drugs at similar or lower rates.

“Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use,” said Tess Borden, the report’s author. “These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence.”

However, Borden acknowledged that decriminalization of all drugs is unlikely in the near future. She hopes the report will influence the government to reclassify drug use and possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and to dedicate more funds to treatment programs at the state and federal level.

Even those who are opposed to decriminalization believe a different approach needs to be taken. Michael Ramos, district attorney of San Bernardino County in California, says decriminalization would pose “huge dangers” to public safety, but that jails and prisons also need to do a better job of providing treatment services to inmates who need it.

“Right now, what we’re doing is putting them in and turning the key,” said Ramos. “There’s not much help there.”

Portugal was the first to decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs in 2001, instead referring users to treatment programs as long as they didn’t possess beyond a 10-day supply. Both inmate and addict advocates hope that a middle ground of diverting non-violent users to drug treatment instead of prison can become more commonplace in the near future.

“If we’re able to engage with these people before entanglement with the criminal justice system, everybody’s a winner,” said Rob Reardon, a former director of corrections who is launching a diversion program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Some people have to go to jail because they are dangerous — but the vast majority are there because they’re poor decision-makers.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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